Saddiq Basha, a Research Analyst with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.
Following the Istanbul bombing on November 13, 2022, misinformation, disinformation, and hate speech have surged online as individuals sought to assign blame for the tragedy. While such emotive rhetoric may be a natural consequence of public grievances and anxiety, others were fueled by various political groups who weaponized the heightened uncertainty and emotions to further their agendas.
The Istanbul Attack
At least six individuals were killed and another 81 were injured in a TNT-laden bomb attack along a major thoroughfare in Istanbul, İstiklal Avenue, on November 13. Turkish authorities have since detained and identified Syrian national Ahlam Albashir as the main perpetrator responsible. Further investigations revealed that Albashir entered Turkey illegally from a Syrian border town, after allegedly receiving training and instructions from affiliates of the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) and its Syrian division, the People’s Protection Unit (YPG).
These revelations have galvanized the public, particularly conservative Turkish nationalists, to call on the government to not only exact revenge on the PKK (which is sometimes wrongly used interchangeably to refer to Kurds) but also to adopt a tougher stance on refugee immigration, with some calling for their mass expulsion. However, others who were more skeptical of the government believed that the PKK/YPG’s denial of involvement, as well as the timing of the bombing so close to the general election later this year, point towards a government conspiracy.
Alarmingly, such rhetoric is not limited to the general public but has been adopted by political groups like the far-Right nationalist Victory Party (ZP) and, to a lesser extent, affiliates of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a PKK/YPG front group. Specifically, they have opportunistically responded to the bombing with an admixture of disinformation tactics (e.g., conspiracy theories) and hate speech to justify their anti-minority and/or anti-government stances. If left unchecked, such use of disinformation and hate speech as propaganda tools risks escalating ethnic and political polarization in Turkish society and raises the possibility of further acts of violence.
Turkey’s PKK Conflict
Since its inception in 1984, the PKK has sporadically conducted guerrilla and terrorist attacks against the Turkish state. The November 2022 Istanbul bombing marks the first major attack by its affiliates since 2015–2017, following the breakdown of the PKK-Turkey peace process in 2015. This attack should come as no surprise since it coincided with the Turkish government’s earlier intensification of airstrike campaigns targeting PKK/YPG leadership in northern Iraq and Syria, which resulted in the deaths of several key ringleaders.
Outrage and calls for vengeance against the PKK were among the common reactions expressed by conservative Turkish nationalists on social media. On Twitter, some users stressed that there is no escape for anyone who supports or praises the PKK and that the country should seek retribution for the terror attack. While such calls for the demise of a terrorist-designated organization are expected, some users have extended their vitriol to PKK’s supposed political supporters and allies. For example, one user claimed to his followers that the pro-Kurdish rights opposition party People’s Democratic Party (HDP) is merely the political arm of the PKK and that its former co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş is a terrorist.
It should be noted that such accusations, although frequently employed by the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP) government itself, have been criticized by analysts as a political ploy to silence opposition voices. Such a line of reasoning thus implies that any supporter of the HDP, which includes a significant number of ethnic minorities such as Kurds and Alevis, is by definition a supporter of terrorism and, as such, could be justifiably attacked. Unfortunately, the scapegoating and targeting of minorities, particularly Kurds, is not a new phenomenon and has occurred frequently in the past during times of political tension.
Such anti-Kurdish rhetoric was also evident among some far-Right Turkish opposition members, who appear to have used the uncertainty post-bombing to blame and vilify Kurdish individuals and groups. This included Adem Taşkaya, the deputy leader of the ZP, who falsely accused Kurdish human rights defender Jiyan Tosun of being the Istanbul bomber in a now-deleted tweet, which led to Tosun receiving death threats. Furthermore, when questioned about Taşkaya’s tweet, ZP party leader Ümit Özdağ dismissed Rudaw, a media group based in Iraqi Kurdistan, as “separatist” and threatened to shut it down if his party came to power. Some conservative Turkish nationalists have even defended this false equivalency between Kurds and PKK, with one emphasizing that they do not differentiate between good and bad Kurds, seeing “the best wolf for them as a dead one.”
This instrumentalization of the İstiklal tragedy by some Turkish far-Right opposition elements to circulate anti-PKK/Kurdish discourse arguably points to the ongoing normalization and currency of the AKP’s populist discourse, aimed at questioning and suppressing Kurdish political ambitions, as a means of bolstering a political party’s nationalist legitimacy. With such discourse seemingly gaining traction in segments of Turkish societies, Kurdish politicians, activists, and citizens may face further marginalization or even repression.
Anti-refugee hate speech was another common reaction found on social media in the aftermath of the İstiklal bombing. For example, while some online users highlighted the perpetrator’s Syrian Arab identity, others criticized the government’s ‘open border’ policy for supposedly allowing Islamic State (IS), PKK, and the Taliban to enter the country. However, this depiction of refugees as an inherent security threat is not unprecedented, given that there has been a noticeable increase in reciprocal acts of violence and criminal activity between the refugees and Turkish communities.
Furthermore, as with anti-Kurdish rhetoric, the Turkish far-Right opposition has seized the opportunity to exploit public grievances concerning refugees for political gain. This is evident from a member of the ZP, İlkim Yüksel, who posted a now-deleted tweet advocating for the closure of borders and the mass deportation of all refugees and illegal immigrants in response to the bombing.
Such extreme calls not only serve as a reminder to the public of the ZP’s unwavering anti-refugee platform but also highlights the increasing role and influence of far-Right opposition parties in mainstreaming anti-refugee rhetoric both in the public and political domain. This trend is concerning, as other political parties may adopt similar rhetoric for fear of electoral repercussions resulting from perceived pro-refugee statements and policies. This could exacerbate the already existing stigma experienced by vulnerable refugee and minority groups and render them more susceptible to hate crimes.
In comparison, responses from anti-government elements focused instead on various conspiracy theories suggesting that the bombing was a ploy by the ‘deep state’. For instance, a user on the r/Turkey Reddit page suggested that the bombing was an attempt by the AKP government to secure their electoral votes by allowing an IS member to carry out the attack while conveniently blaming the PKK. Similar theories were found on r/Kurdistan where a user claimed that the attack was falsely attributed to the PKK since “elections are coming” and the AKP “doesn’t have the majority and [are] on the brink of losing.”
While anonymous social media users’ conspiracy theories may not pose an immediate threat, the same cannot be said when armed militia groups are found rehashing such conspiracies. In what is believed to be the Facebook account of an affiliate of SDF, it claimed the perpetrator was “linked to the Islamic State” and that the bombing was an excuse for Turkish President Erdogan to “destroy and occupy new Syrian areas and make a demographic change and the deportation of the refugees to achieve gains in the coming elections.”
It should be noted that there are no signs from IS-affiliated sources that its members were responsible for the Istanbul attack. Although these theories may be disseminated as a means of contesting the Turkish government’s portrayal of the SDF and its affiliates as a terrorist organization, the promotion of such anti-government sentiments and mistrust in mainstream narratives may contribute to a gradual slide toward radicalization, particularly among individuals who hold grievances towards the state.
The aftermath of the Istanbul bombing witnessed a resurgence of anti-refugee and anti-Kurdish sentiments on social media, as well as the proliferation of anti-government conspiracy narratives. This phenomenon can be attributed, at least in part, to various political actors who employed disinformation strategies and hate speech to exploit and reinforce long-standing fears and grievances in Turkish society as a means of legitimizing and forwarding their agendas.
This is by no means an unprecedented development, as such actors are simply taking a page from the AKP’s political playbook. As the embrace of conspiratorial politics in Turkey becomes increasingly prevalent under the current AKP, it is imperative to pay closer attention to the impact and use of misinformation, disinformation, and hate speech propagated not only by the incumbent but also by the far-Right opposition, particularly in the run-up to the upcoming general elections. This is particularly crucial, given that these tactics have the potential to perpetuate cycles of violence not only between diverse communities within Turkey but also between the government and militant groups, such as the PKK and the Islamic State.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.